Spotlighting Student Work #15: Prophetic Fashion

Tonight we’re hearing from Liz Olney, with an essay discussing Netflix re-boot Queer Eye. Here’s some background about Liz.

I’m from Auckland (more specifically from the Shore – born and raised haha!). I am currently studying for a law-arts conjoint (LLB/BA), majoring in sociology and criminology, which I am enjoying. I would like to go into law and see where that takes me. I took the Bible in Pop Culture course because it had VERY good reviews online and it sounded very interesting – I’ve always been quite curious about religious beliefs as I haven’t had too much direct exposure to them myself.

Let’s have a look at the essay!

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Queer Eye for the Prophetic Guy

Liz Olney

Netflix’s 2018 show ‘Queer Eye’ has been a smash hit, winning the Emmy for ‘Outstanding Structured Reality Program’. Its five stars (Jonathan van Ness, Tan France, Karamo Brown, Antoni Porowski, and Bobby Berk) have shot to fame with their charisma, humour, and honesty. These five men (dubbed the ‘Fab Five’) transform people’s lives every episode and, whilst doing so, raise awareness of many important social issues. In this essay I will explain how the Fab Five embody three of Marcus Borg’s definitions of biblical prophets: they disturb our sense of normalcy, emerge from a situation of oppression by elites, and have a passion for social justice (2001).

Firstly, the Fab Five disturb our sense of normalcy. As openly gay men, they do not shy away from discussing controversial topics. In fact, they arguably consider it to be their responsibility given the platform they have. For example, Brown (an African-American man) gets pulled over by a police officer while driving. This turns out to be a prank, but the concern on Brown’s face prior to his knowledge of this is prominent. This results in a dialogue between Brown and the police officer regarding the genuine fear black Americans experience when interacting with police officers. Brown elaborates: “My kid did not want to get his licence because he was scared he was going to get pulled over and shot by a cop” (Brown, 2018). This conversation was visibly difficult for both men, but it was productive and meaningful, with the two men shaking hands afterwards.

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Queer Eye‘s crew at work

One of the main dominant discourses in society the Fab Five clearly aim to challenge is the toxic nature of masculinity.  Hegemonic masculinity describes the highly influential stereotype that men are the more powerful gender and that women should be subordinate to men (Connell, 2005). Toxic masculinity stems from this concept, with men feeling as though they have to be as ‘manly’ as possible, not care ‘too much’ about their appearance, and hide their emotions. Van Ness especially emphasises the importance of self-care. In every episode van Ness demonstrates various skincare routines, as well as giving each episode’s star a new haircut to make sure they look their best and feel confident. Van Ness himself frequently behaves in a feminine manner – he often wears dresses and high heels, has long, freely-hanging hair, and refers to himself as ‘she’. His behaviours help to remove the stigma around men dressing and acting like anything other than the archetypal masculine man. I believe both of these examples show how the Fab Five disturb normalcy: they actively tackle social issues that are frowned upon or rarely spoken of.

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Jeremiah, a biblical prophet, also disturbed his society’s sense of normalcy, and was not afraid to speak out against dominant discourses. In Jeremiah 2:14-19, he refers to Israel as a “slave”, and “plunder”, before asking: “Have you not brought this upon yourself by forsaking the Lord your God, while he led you in the way?” At the time, it was commonly known that Israel was a wasteland, but Jeremiah took this further by actively blaming the people for this because of their “evil and bitter” behaviour. This message would have been initially disapproved of as most people would have thought this was unfair and inaccurate. Similarly, the Fab Five bravely represent several unpopular opinions. For example, their openness about their sexuality is often met with harsh judgment and offensive remarks, but they do not let this stop them from expressing the ideas they believe in. In this way, both Jeremiah and the Fab Five challenge dominant ideologies and disturb society’s sense of normalcy.

Secondly, ‘prophecy emerges from a situation of oppression by elites’ (Borg, 2001). Despite the positive shift in support of the LGBTQI+ community, there is no doubt that the LGBTQI+ community is still oppressed. There are many statistics that prove this. For example, 34% of American LGBTQI+ youths have been bullied at school, and 29% of American LGBTQI+ youths attempted suicide in 2014 – compared to 6% of heterosexual youths (CDC, 2015). The Fab Five often talk about the oppression they have experienced – for example, Berk shares how he was kicked out of his Church and his home when he came out as gay. He elaborates on what he was taught in his Church: “Gay people were bad, and they were paedophiles, and they were evil. So I spent every prayer meeting and every Sunday crying and begging God not to make me gay” (Berk, 2018). It is very obvious that Berk, as well the other members of the Fab Five were (and still are) oppressed as openly gay men, especially considering the public nature of their work. Therefore, they understand what it is like to be oppressed and stand up for people in similar situations so that hopefully, one day, these people will no longer have to experience what they went through.

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Queer Eye star Tan France with guest Neal

This desire to help and protect groups affected by oppression resembles the biblical prophet Amos, who said: “…you cows of Bashan…who oppress the poor, who crush the needy…the Lord God has sworn by his holiness: the time is surely coming upon you” (Amos 4:1-2). This shows a fierce hatred towards the ‘elites’ that discriminate against people for reasons that cannot be helped. This statement is backed up by the introduction of God – if an authoritative figure such as God has said something, it must be true. While the Fab Five address different oppressed societies, it is clear that both parties aim to remove the barrier between the elite and the oppressed. Furthermore, while Queer Eye’s stars do not quote God to give their ideas weight, they have other strategies. The Fab Five use: an internationally acclaimed TV show; their own immense followings; and the support of other well-respected people (e.g. the other members of the Fab Five, famous celebrities, and political figures). Therefore, the Fab Five are able to deliver their message (to stop oppressing the weak) with impact, just like Amos.

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That’s like, genuinely really heartwarming

Lastly, Queer Eye’s Fab Five have a passion for social justice. The very first episode begins with a montage of clips of the five men talking about how much featuring on the show means to them. France sums up the Fab Five’s intention perfectly by stating: “Our fight is for acceptance” (France, 2018). Brown further adds: “We’ve all got to come together in a way we can understand each other” (Brown, 2018). As previously discussed, the Fab Five speak out against the status quo when it comes to social issues, especially those that lead to oppression of certain groups in society. I believe these behaviours show the men’s strong passion for social justice – they are so passionate about getting a message out about what they believe is right. On the show, (amongst other things) they want the LGBTQI+ community to be accepted for who they are. However, the Fab Five fit this prophecy definition in their personal lives too – they use their fame as a platform to voice their opinions and influence millions of people. For example, Porowski used his Instagram account (which has 2.5 million followers) to announce publicly that he attended a pride parade in Canada with prominent political figures, including Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada (2018). Another example is the repetitive posting on Instagram by Brown and van Ness (who have 1.7 and 2.6 million followers respectively) encouraging people to vote. Brown posted a video with van Ness in October (shortly following the controversial appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court) where he said: “In this upcoming election you have to get out and vote…because your voice has power” (2018). I believe posts such as these clearly show the men’s desire for social justice. They want everyone to be treated equally and have their opinions heard, and they take their fame as an opportunity to get this message across.

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Queer Eye frontman Jonathan Van Ness and chef Antoni Porowski

Again, the Fab Five resemble the biblical prophet Amos. Amos 5:23-24 states: “I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”. Clearly, Amos is a devout believer in social justice too. The quoted passage shows the belief that while people may have very rigid beliefs, nothing should be listened to except for what is right. This aligns with the idea the Fab Five present: social justice is crucial and should be aimed for. As previously discussed, the social issues presented by both parties differ greatly. Furthermore, it can be argued that Amos is specifically referring to the treatment of the poor, whereas the Fab Five refer to many different social issues, as well as simply presenting the overall message that everybody’s voices should be heard. However, one distinct similarity to Amos’ words is the use of colourful imagery. For example, in a post encouraging people to vote, van Ness states that “the light is coming” (2018). This invokes an emotional response, which further encourages people to listen to what is being said. Put simply, both Amos and the Fab Five’s goal to inspire social justice is obvious.

In conclusion, I have presented how Queer Eye’s Fab Five disturb society’s sense of normalcy, emerge from a situation of oppression (and represent those who are oppressed), and have a passion for social justice. Van Ness, France, Brown, Porowski, and Berk’s refreshing positivity and honesty has inspired many, which is why the show has been so successful. In the words of Terry Giles (2018): “the prophetic performer does not leave his audience as he found them”, and this is most definitely the case with the Fab Five.

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Bibliography

All references to the biblical text are from the NRSV.

Borg, M. J. (2001). Reading the Bible again for the first time; taking the Bible seriously but not literally (1st ed.). San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Brown, K. [@karamobrown]. (2018, October 7). Today is a sad day…Our voices have power! [Instagram post]. Retrieved from https://www.instagram.com/p/BomtUEWFMrD/?hl=en&taken-by=karamobrown.

CDC: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Health. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/lgbthealth/youth.htm.

Connell, R. W. (2005). Masculinities (2nd ed.). Berkeley, California: University of California.

Giles, T. (2018). Prophets as Performers. Retrieved from https://www.bibleodyssey.org/passages/related-articles/prophets-as-performers.

Porowski, A. [@antoni]. (2018, August 29). A mayor…and… THIS guy. [Instagram post]. Retrieved from https://www.instagram.com/p/BnB8PzklXnm/?hl=en&taken-by=antoni.

Van Ness, J., France, T., Brown, K., Porowski, A., & Berk, B. (Performers). (2018, February 7). Queer Eye, [Television series]. United States of America: Netflix.

Van Ness, J. [@jvn]. (2018, September 28). 39 days to midterms…the light is coming. [Instagram post]. Retrieved from  https://www.instagram.com/p/BoP5FmtBJpN/?hl=en&taken-by=jvn.

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